For the last few months, I have been working on writing a book. Through this process, I have been reading LOTS of other people’s books on various topics – from parenting, communication, relationships and discipline techniques, strategies, and theory.
Some of what I have read has made me sad about ways I have parented my own children. We do the best we know how to do with the tools we have at the time. In my mind, I know this. But in my heart, I want SO MUCH for my children that every little thing that wasn’t perfect, seems to be of greater consequence than it probably really is. It takes insight and retrospection to see mistakes, acknowledge, forgive, move on and do better. Similarly, in our co-parenting, we need to look at the tools we have, reflect on how they’re working for us and our children, try different techniques and move on when we find better tools.
I want to share with you, an example from a book called ‘Unconditional Parenting’ by Alfie Kohn. It’s a book about moving from rewards and punishments (eg. sticker charts, time out, ‘grounding’) to love and reasoning. While it is specifically directed at parenting, I believe it has application in communicating with your child’s other parent.
“A father in Ontario wrote to tell me about the day his four-year-old daughter brought home a bag of snacks from school.
She dumped them on the living room floor and made a big mess, and I asked her to put them back in the bag and set them on the table. She refused. My initial reaction was that this was a challenge to my authority. She had ‘disobeyed’ me, and therefore, punishment was in order. Otherwise, she wouldn’t listen to me in the future. [Instead, though,] I asked her, “Why don’t you want to put them away?” She replied, “Because I want to eat them.” The problem solved itself after this. All I had to say was, “You can still eat them after you put them in the bag – all I want is the living room clean.” She immediately put them in the bag and set them on the table.”
Unconditional Parenting, Alfie Kohn p. 127
While, (I would hope) we don’t participate in punishing our ex-partner when they disagree with us, challenge us or fail to stick to an agreement or expectation, we often don’t communicate effectively either.
Consider this new example:
“Jeff, would you please swap weekends with me next month?”
“No, Alice, that isn’t going to happen.”
Then Alice gets in a huff, tells everyone how inflexible and uncooperative Jeff is, and promises herself not to ever give in to one of his requests again.
What if Alice had asked a different question? What if Jeff had reacted differently? What if instead of just saying ‘no’, he had explained that he was unable to swap the entire weekend, and asked questions about how he could meet Alice’s request? What if Alice and Jeff had co-operated for their mutual benefit and that of their children? What would it be like to be a child in the example above? Would you like to be the child in that situation?
“Jeff, I have an appointment I want to keep Saturday night next month when the children are with me. Is it possible for you to swap weekends, please?”
“Alice, I can’t swap the entire weekend but I can have the children from 7pm Saturday until 8am Sunday. Does that work for you?”
“Thanks, Jeff, I can make that work.”
Consider the two previous examples. Which parents would you rather have?
In an adult relationship, it’s important to also consider reciprocity. Perhaps Jeff could take it one step further … “Alice, I can’t swap the entire weekend but I can have the children from 7pm Saturday until 8am Sunday. Then they can spend from 7pm Saturday until 8am Sunday the following weekend with you instead of me. Does that work for you?”
Yes, Jeff is putting himself out and compromising. Alice is also compromising as her initial request was for an exchange of the entire weekend. The children are not having less time with either of their parents. The parents are caring for the children rather than babysitters or other family members. Some might even call it a ‘win-win’ negotiation!
So what stops us, in our co-parenting, from creating flexibility and easy negotiations?
It’s all about communication.
In the coming weeks, I’m going to discuss a little more, about how and why we end up in patterns of communication that just don’t work for us or our children. It’s easy to bring the ‘stuff’ from our relationship with us, once we’re separated. Add to that, all the heartache from our divorce and it is no wonder we’re arguing and tearing our hair out.
I’ll leave you with these words …
“Goodness is about character – integrity, honesty, kindness, generosity, moral courage and the like. More than anything else, it is about how we treat other people.”